US Gulf of Mexico, East Coast snapper, grouper, and crab fishermen report successes

Published on
April 7, 2021

Fisheries in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Southeast have experienced success, despite pandemic pressures that began in 2020.

Red snapper are now more plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico, but prices are staying strong as a result of high consumer demand and a let-up in COVID-19 restrictions that slowed sales to restaurants early in 2020.

Fishermen are able to catch their quota with no difficulty, and boat prices are hovering in the USD 5.00 to USD 6.00 (EUR 4.23 to EUR 5.07) per pound range, with fishermen who are leasing quota netting about USD 2.00 (EUR 1.69) per pound.

Off the coast of the U.S. Southeast, where red snapper are managed separately, populations are similarly abundant, according to some fish house operators. But the commercial fishery was only open from mid-July through early September, when NMFS determined fishermen had fulfilled their quota. Opening dates for 2021 have not been announced.

Fishermen have been able to meet some consumer demand with vermilion snapper – a smaller but tasty species that garner between USD 2.75 and USD 4.00 (EUR 2.32 and EUR 3.38) per pound, depending on size.

After a slow start in early to mid-2020, production of gag, red, yellow-edge, and snowy grouper boomed late in the year in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Karen Bell, operator of A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, Florida. Bell is paying about USD 4.50 (EUR 3.80) per pound for reds to the 12 boats running out of her docks, as Florida restaurants have welcomed an influx of tourists. Bell said she hopes demand will increase as the U.S. continues to roll out its COVID-19 vaccination program, making people more comfortable to travel.

Fishermen in the U.S. Southeast had a pretty good year for gags after the shallow-water grouper harvest season opened in May, according to Chris Conklin, operator of Seven Seas Seafood Market in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Conklin said fishermen caught more than 70 percent of their grouper quota before the season closed 31 December and would have caught the remainder if restaurants had reopened sooner, following COVID-19 restrictions.

Boat prices haven’t been as strong as past seasons, dropping about USD 1.00 (EUR 0.84) per pound from pre-pandemic years to about USD 6.50 (EUR 5.50) per pound. Competition from cheaper imports hasn’t helped either, Conklin said. But fishermen are looking forward to a better 2021 as the economy emerges from the pandemic and demand rises.

Florida’s lucrative stone crab harvest, meanwhile, which opened in mid-October, is shaping up into what Marathon, Florida-based Keys Fisheries operator Gary Graves calls an “average season,” even though it faces new restrictions this year. He said harvesters are on track to produce between 2 million and 2.3 million pounds by season’s end on 1 May, with “very strong” prices.

Boat prices range from USD 29.00 (EUR 24.00) per pound of jumbo claws to USD 23.00 (EUR 19.00) for colossal, and USD 18.00 (EUR 15.00) for large, Graves said. Stone crab production has been down in the Keys from the highs of the late 1990s – due to overfishing and environmental factors like hurricanes and red tide – and prices have skyrocketed. To stabilize the fishery, and on the advice of Keys fishermen, Florida last year enacted new rules shortening the season by two weeks and increasing the minimum claw size, which Graves hopes will produce benefits in a year or two.

Lower catches and higher prices dominated 2020 in the two major blue crab producer states of Louisiana and North Carolina.

According to Peyton Cagle, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ crustacean chief, landings were down by about one million pounds from January to August compared to the same period in 2019. But boat prices “blew up” to about USD 5.00 (EUR 4.23) per pound for large males – well up from the usual seasonal average of USD 2.00 to USD 3 (EUR 1.69 to EUR 2.53). In summer when prices typically drop, the region’s rolling battle with more than a half dozen tropical storms and hurricanes kept fishermen off the water, reducing production. But things rebounded in the fall, and stability returned to the fishery.

In North Carolina, fishermen counted 2020 as a good year, even though January-to-June landings dropped to 5.48 million pounds compared to 7.28 million pounds in 2019. Jeff Styron of Garland Fulcher Seafood in Oriental, North Carolina, said average prices were USD 3.50 (EUR 2.93) for jimmy crabs with fluctuations between USD 2.75 and  USD 4.00 (EUR 2.32 and EUR 3.38) – consistent with 2019.

North Carolina crab fishermen face increased restrictions in 2021, including closed seasons, establishment of sanctuary areas, size limits on female crabs and other rules because fisheries managers said the stock is overfished. 

Reporting by Sue Cocking

Photo courtesy of Bill Cochrane via National Fisherman

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